Jan 24 2016

See Five Planets

Published by under Weather & Sky

EarthSky.org illustrates view of 5 visible planets 80 minutes before sunrise, Jan 20 - Feb 20, 2016 (image linked from EarthSky.org)

EarthSky.org illustrates the view of 5 visible planets 80 minutes before sunrise, Jan 20 – Feb 20, 2016 (image linked from EarthSky.org)

In case you didn’t hear this on the news last week … you’ll be interested to know that between January 20 and February 20 you can see all five visible planets 80 minutes before sunrise in an arch across the southern sky.  That’s Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in order left to right.

The illustration above, linked from earthsky.org, shows where to look and when.  Click here or on the illustration to read more about this phenomenon.

Sunrise tomorrow, Monday, January 25, is at 7:35am in Pittsburgh, but before you set your alarm so you can be outdoors facing south by 6:15am you’ll want to know if it’s worth it. Pittsburgh’s skies are notoriously cloudy in the winter.  Will the sky be clear enough to see five planets?

To find out, check the handy chart for Pittsburgh here at ClearDarkSky.com.

Here’s a sample of what you’ll find when you get there.  This is yesterday’s chart surrounded by an orange border to remind you that this is ONLY A SAMPLE! Click on the image to see the real thing.

Sample of ClearDarkSky.com chart for Pittsburgh, PA for SATURDAY JAN 23 2016 (Sample Only!)

Sample of ClearDarkSky.com chart for Pittsburgh, PA for SATURDAY JAN 23 2016 (Sample Only!)

On the chart, dark blue on the “Darkness” line is good.  The white to pale blue areas indicate cloud cover, moonlight or sunlight.

Check the chart and get up early between now and February 20.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, click here to find your location.

Good luck!


(illustration of five planets linked from EarthSky.org plus a sample of the Pittsburgh Clear Dark Sky chart from ClearDarkSky.com)

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Jan 23 2016

Confused About Names?

Published by under Weather & Sky

screenshot from winter storm newson The Weather Channel, 23 Jan 2016. Click on the image to read the story.

Screenshot from winter storm news on The Weather Channel, 23 Jan 2016. Click on the image to read the story.

If you’ve been paying close attention, you may have noticed that most media about this weekend’s weather calls it “the storm.”   It does not have a name. But if you tune into The Weather Channel, they call it Jonas.

In October 2012 The Weather Channel announced they would name winter storms to improve their communications about the storms.  This was not a popular move.

Within a month the National Weather Service announced they would not use the names. By February 2013 Accuweather, the New York Times, the Washington Post and others went on record that they wouldn’t use them either.

That’s why, three+ years later, only those who watch The Weather Channel call this storm by name.


(screenshot from The Weather Channel. Click on the image to see the news article at TWC)

p.s. On a personal note, I get my weather from the organization that provides the data (in the public domain & mostly free of charge!) that The Weather Channel uses to make their forecasts:  The National Weather Service

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Jan 22 2016

Why The Apple Tree Came Down

Published by under Mammals

One autumn evening in Sweden, a man came home from his nighttime job and heard a strange bellowing in the dark coming from his neighbor’s apple tree.

A drunken moose was calling for help!

To rescue the moose they had to chop down the tree.

And that’s why the apple tree came down.


(video from YouTube)

p.s. The moose had been eating fermented apples.


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Jan 21 2016

Lead Poisoning Kills Birds

Published by under Birds of Prey

Bald Eagle in rehab for lead poisoning at Medina Raptor Center, Medina, OH (photo by Debbie Parker)

Bald Eagle in rehab for lead poisoning, Medina Raptor Center, Medina, OH, January 2009 (photo by Debbie Parker)

On Throw Back Thursday:

The news from Flint, Michigan about lead in their water supply reminds me that I wrote about lead poisoning in birds back in 2009.  Sadly not much has changed.

Though the U.S. has banned lead shot in wetlands, it’s still present in fishing sinkers and the bullets used in deer hunting.  Scavenging birds, including bald eagles, eat the gut piles hunters leave behind and are poisoned by the bullet fragments.  Many die.

A 2012 bald eagle mortality study in the Upper Mississippi Valley found that 60% of the dead eagles had detectable concentrations of lead in their livers. 38% had lethal levels.

In 2012 USFW researchers examined 58 dead bald eagles and identified lead exposure as a significant mortality factor (photo from USFW)

In 2012, researchers examined 58 dead bald eagles and identified lead exposure as a significant mortality factor (photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Midwest Region)

Sadly, the problem is seen too often by veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitators.

Back in January 2009 I wrote about the dangers of lead poisoning and the sick eagle, pictured above, who was treated at Medina Raptor Center, Ohio. Click here to learn more in this 2009 blog post: Lead Poisoning


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. Last year California became the first state to ban lead in bullets.  They are phasing them out over a period of five years.

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Jan 20 2016

The Tickbird

This week I blogged about a caracara on a capybara but I didn’t tell you much about the bird.  Why was the bird standing on the mammal?  Hint: The falcon’s nickname is “tickbird.”

Yellow-headed caracaras (Milvago chimachima) are omnivorous members of the falcon family who live in south-Central and South America.  They eat almost anything — carrion, frogs, fish, eggs, palm fruit, corn, horse dung — but when it comes to feeding their young they focus a lot on insects.  90% of the nestlings’ diet consists of beetles, grasshoppers and crickets.

They earned their nickname “tickbirds” because they also glean ticks off of cattle and other mammals, including capybaras.  Above, a juvenile yellow-faced caracara cleans a cow.  The cattle don’t mind, even when the caracaras pick at open wounds.

Yellow-headed caracaras have adapted well as the forest is converted to ranches and cities.  When they aren’t picking ticks off cattle they’re gregarious in town.  You’d never guess from this video that their nickname is The Tickbird.


(videos from YouTube. The second video was filmed in Cali, Columbia)

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Jan 19 2016

Caracara, Capybara

Published by under Beyond Bounds,Mammals

Yellow-headed caracara on capybara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-headed caracara on capybara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hawk on pig?  Well, almost…

Caracara on capybara.

The bird is a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima), a member of the falcon family native to South America(*) and similar in size to a Cooper’s hawk.

The mammal is a capybara (Hydrochoeris hydrochaeris), the world’s largest rodent. Its scientific name is Greek for “water pig.”  Its English name means “eats slender leaves” in the extinct Tupi language of Brazil.

Semi-aquatic, vegetarian, and closely related to the guinea pig, capybaras swim a lot.  They eat grass and aquatic plants which fortunately wear down their continuously growing teeth.  They also eat their own feces to get more nutrition out of their partially digested food.

Capybaras are big.  They stand as tall as a German shepherd but of course they’re not the same shape and they weigh a lot more.  For a sense of scale, here’s a group of capybaras grazing in a park in Brazil.

Capybaras grazing at Parque Barigüi, Curitiba, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Capybaras grazing at Parque Barigüi, Curitiba, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These groups are typical.  Capybaras are very social and live with 10-20 and up to 100 other individuals.  The round bump on their snouts is a scent gland called a morillo which they rub on everything to say “I’m here.”  They also use anal scent glands and urine for the same purpose.  Obviously capybaras do not make good pets.

As for the bird, why is the caracara on the capybara?

More on that tomorrow.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)

(*) Both the bird and the mammal have increased their range into southern Central America.

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Jan 18 2016

Love Is In The Air

Published by under Peregrines

Hope bows low and turns her head in courtship with E2 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at the Cathedral of Learning)

Hope bows low and turns her head as she courts with E2 (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at the Cathedral of Learning)

Though January is gray and cold, peregrine falcon courtship has begun.  Watch the skies near any of Pittsburgh’s nesting sites and you’re likely to see peregrines in courtship flight.  It’s a breath-taking display that ends at the nest.

If you miss them in the sky you can see them on camera at the falconcam sites as they perform another part of their courtship: ledge displays.

Above, Hope and E2 “chirp,” bow low, and turn their heads side to side as they court at the Cathedral of Learning nest on Saturday, January 16.

Below, Louie entices Dori to visit the Gulf Tower nest on Thursday, January 14.  I hope she takes his hint and starts to make a scrape in the new gravel.

Dori and Louie court at the Gulf Tower nest, 14 Jan 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

Dori and Louie at the Gulf Tower nest, 14 Jan 2016 (photo from the National Aviary falconcam)

Click on each image to see the streaming video at the nest.

Love is in the air right now.  Watch for eggs in mid/late March.


(photos from the National Aviary falconcams at University of Pittsburgh and Gulf Tower)

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Jan 17 2016

Whose Voice Is That?

Blue jays mimic the sounds of raptors to warn (or fool!) other blue jays.

In Pittsburgh they often mimic red-tailed hawks.  In Florida red-shouldered hawks are much more common so the jays imitate them instead.

This video from MyBackyardBirding in Florida is a good example of how blue jays can sound like red-shouldered hawks.  Can you tell who’s who when they aren’t on screen?

The mourning dove seems to be having a hard time figuring it out.


(video from MyBackyardBirding on YouTube)


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Jan 16 2016

Tanagers Bathing

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Grassland Yellow-Finch, Orange-fronted Yellow-Finch and Glaucous Tanager bathing in southern Venezuela (photo by barloventomagico, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

Birds bathing in southern Venezuela (photo by barloventomagico via Flickr)

They look like canaries, don’t they?

In Spanish the yellow ones are indeed called canaries “Canario,” yet all three are in the tanager family (Thraupidae), the second largest family of birds in the world.

Barloventomagico photographed them at El Cedral Ranch in southern Venezuela on December 30.  Here’s who they are from left to right:  Spanish, (Scientific name), English:

Though they’re tanagers they aren’t related to ours at all.  Our familiar scarlet, summer, western and hepatic tanagers (Piranga) are now in the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae).

What a confusion of names!


(photos by barloventomagico via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s. A special shout out to Dr. Tony Bledsoe at the University of Pittsburgh!  His work on Sicalis DNA in the late 1980s proved that Sicalis are tanagers  — published in The Auk (105: 504-515) in July 1988 as: Nuclear DNA Evolution And Phylogeny of The New World Nine-Primaried Oscines.

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Jan 15 2016

A Conversation Between Two Birds

During the snowy owl irruption two years ago, John Dunstan recorded this video of a raven and a snowy owl having a conversation.

The raven says many things.  The snowy owl is unimpressed.

Notice at 1:20 in the video that the top of the raven’s head seems to grow “ears.”  This dominance gesture means “I’m big! Watch out!”  The owl doesn’t care and reaches over to peck the raven at 1:44.  The raven’s ears go down … but up again at 2:09.  What’s going on?

John Dunstan asked raven expert Bernd Heinrich, author of The Mind of the Raven, for an explanation and put Heinrich’s reply in the video description:

Naturalist Bernd Heinrich, author of “The Mind of the Raven”, was nice enough to provide this description.

Hi John,
The first thing to notice is that the owl is TOTALLY unimpressed. It’s not scared in the least, and the raven has no aggressive intentions, but starts out being just curious – like: “what the hell is This!” So it tests – tries to get a reaction. But the owl still stays totally nonchalant. At some point the raven then tries a different tactic – it puts on its “I’m a big guy” display of erect “ear” feathers – usually used to show status in the presence of potential superiors, but here used also with a bowing and wing-flaring, which is used in supplication if there is NOT going to be a challenge – so, yes, I think the raven was having fun, and then also starting to have some respect, because this big white thing was NOT going to cooperate and be its toy. 

The comments on the video are priceless!  Click here to see the video on YouTube and read the comments.


(video by John Dunstan on YouTube)

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